ANNA BELFRAGE

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

Archive for the category “Reflections”

In the name of love – not always a happy tale

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A pomegranate tree – a symbol of love

God, it is said, created Adam before Eve, and to keep Adam adequately occupied he was given the task of naming all the fantastic forms of life God paraded before him.
“Centipede,” Adam said, having regarded this multifooted creature for a while.
“Zebra,” he nodded (with an extended eeee sound) but was struck mute by the stately grandeur of the hairy pachyderm that looked down its very long, elongated nose at him.
“Mammoth,” Adam decided after a while.

Day after day, he sat there naming these creatures, and it struck him somewhere round day 178 that they all came in pairs. Two elephants, two lions, two penguins, two stoats but only one Adam. Which was why God brought forth Eve, and Adam took but one look and fell helplessly in love. Alternatively one could argue that if Adam wanted to procreate, there wasn’t much to choose from – same goes for Eve.
“You could try, you know,” Eve said one evening, looking Adam up and down.
“Eh?” Adam wiped his mouth with the back of his forearm.
“A girl likes being courted,” Eve pouted. “You know, flowers, jewelry  the odd little daytrip …” Eve sighed and threw a look at the rolling green meadows of Eden, picture perfect and oh, so boring.
“Why bother?” Adam yawned. “It’s only you and me, right?”
“I could find someone else,” Eve threatened.
“Yeah, sure,” Adam laughed, “like how about setting up house with the ant-eater next door? Or hey, chat up Mr Tiger and see how far that gets you.” Adam was very amused. Eve was not, and when dusk settled like a purple velvet curtain Eve refused to snuggle up close to Adam, staring at Venus instead while humming “Love hurts“.
“Pssst! Gorgeoussssssss,” someone hissed.
Eve almost fell off her little log. “Who’s that?” she hissed back, straightening her spine somewhat.
“It’sssss me,” this hissing presence said. “You’re one ssssexy lady, ssssssweetheart.”
“You think?” Eve preened and sidled closer to the voice that seemed to be coming from a nearby tree.
Well, the rest is history as they say, with a very aggravated Adam being thrown out of paradise on account of his woman. (Or wife? Were Adam and Eve married?) I imagine there were many, many nights when Adam berated his wife for being an idiot, in response to which Eve cried that it was his fault – for not showing her he loved her.
“Love you?” Adam snorted. “What sort of romantic drivel is that?”.

If we stay with the Old Testament for a while longer, there’s the sad lovestory of Samson and Delilah. Samson was a somewhat complex character, bound by his parent’s oath as a nazarite, one of God’s chosen. God has plans for Samson, having given the young man impressive strength with which to smite the Philistines – as long as he didn’t cut his hair (Haircuts and alcoholic beverages are a major no-no for the nazarites amongst us). Anyway, Samson became a major burr on the Philistines’ nether parts, and after several failed attempts at catching him, the Philistines resorted to a ruse. Samson loved a young woman called Delilah (as deceitful then as she was when Tom Jones sang about her) and one night he finally told her it was all in his hair, whereupon she proceeded to shave his head while he slept. This was probably unrequited love from Samson’s side – Delilah seemed quite unperturbed when her man was led away and blinded. One could say that in this case, what Samson did in the name of love was sheer stupidity.

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Kick-ass Judith (L Cranach)

Yet another woman in the Old testament, Judith, took a leaf out of Delilah’s book, seducing the Assyrian general Holofernes before chopping his head off while he slept. Okay, so she had valid reasons to do so – the Assyrians threatened to destroy her home – but yet again love was used as cunning deceit.  (One strong woman, dear old Judith; decapitating someone requires a lot of muscle) One could of course argue that this had nothing to do with love. this was lust, plain and simple, the fire raging in Holofernes’ loins when in Judith’s presence befuddling his mind to the point that he lost his head.

Helene_Paris_DavidWe fast forward a number of centuries and there we are, with Paris and Helen. The lady with the face that launched a thousand ships fell heads over heels for the Trojan prince and decided to run off with her lover thereby shaming her husband and handing the Greeks the pretext they needed to once and for all destroy Troy. Which they did with surprising efficiency, eradicating the city so completely its actual location was lost. (Until a polyglot German business man by the name of Heinrich Schliemann rediscovered it in the nineteenth century. Not a man much swayed by love, Heinrich took a pragmatic approach regarding such matters and advertised for a wife when he needed one. Different story …) Yet another lovestory that ended without a Happily Ever After. Paris died, Helen was dragged back home by hubby Menelaos, and Paris’ entire family was exterminated.

Around the times of Christ we have gorgeous Cleopatra, the lady who gave milk-baths a name, so to say. In keeping with tradition, Cleopatra was married to her younger brothers (in plural, as one died and the next one stepped into his place) But she loved elsewhere, starting with Julius Caesar. When they met, Cleopatra was young and nubile, Caesar was battle-hardened and… yup, old. But clearly vigorous enough to inspire tender feelings in his Egyptian mistress – or was that just Cleopatra pretending to keep herself and her country safe? Later on, after Caesar’s death, Cleopatra was to transfer her affections to Mark Anthony, and for a while it seemed these passionate lovers would succeed in building their own little empire. Enter capable, cool-headed Octavianus and “poof”, that little dream bubble was skewered. Mark Anthony committed suicide after suffering defeat at Octavianus’ hands, and some while later Cleopatra followed suit, as per tradition by being bitten by an asp.

Through the ages, loves and infatuations have often changed the course of history – or at least had severe impact on it. Edward II had a thing about his male favourites that undermined his standing and led to him being ousted (it may all have been platonic, we don’t know), Henry VIII’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn lead to a new English Church, Edward VII fell so in love with Wallis Simpson he abdicated (it’s a tad unclear if this is what Wallis wanted. Whatever the case, how can you say no to a man who has resigned a crown for your sake?). And then we have all those cases where women (okay, okay; a smattering of men as well) have risked everything – even their lives – for love.

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Armfeldt

One such person is Madeleine Rudenschiöld, a Swedish lady who in the late eighteenth century fell head over heels in over with the handsome royal favourite, Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt. An eyeful  was Gustaf – to our modern eyes somewhat lacking in toned muscle, but all the same pleasing to look at with an absolutely magnificent head of hair.  This decorated officer and cosmopolitan Don Juan was one of the king’s confidantes and was responsible for the lavish and complicated entertainments offered at court. Pretty Madeleine was young and innocent, and taken aback by being the object of Armfeldt’s intense courtship.

A determined man, Armfeldt won Madeleine’s heart in 1785 – coincidentally the same year he married another woman – and was soon a regular visitor to Madeleine’s bed. Being a man of voracious appetites when it came to women, Armfeldt had a number of other mistresses as well, but from his correspondence and the length of their relationship, Madeleine does seem to have held a special place in his heart – as did his capable if somewhat frumpty wife (whom he rather sweetly refers to as “my pumpkin”). So far, this is nothing but a little love affair, but when Gustav III was murdered in 1792, Armfeldt’s comfortable existence at court came to an end.

Armfeldt was ousted from power, did not like it and conspired to achieve the downfall of his enemies and his reinstatement at court. Dear Madeleine helped, delivering his messages to the other men involved in the conspiracy. One day she was intercepted, the conspiracy was revealed and while Armfeldt was safe down in Italy, poor Madeleine was not, having to suffer the ultimate shame of pillory and prison for having helped her lover. She was pardoned some years later and sort of drops out of history. She seems to have spent her latter years as an unpaid housekeeper for her brother. Oh, the wages of true love!

People do stupid things for love. Some drink poison to die beside their lover, some sell everything they own to help their loved one pursue a dream. It’s easy to laugh at these gullible fools – even if most of us will twist our lips in wry recognition as we hear a husky voice sing the poignant words in one of my favourite songs, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

They asked me how I knew, my true love was true,
I of course replied, something here inside cannot be denied.
They said someday you’ll find all who love are blind.
When your heart’s on fire, you must realise, smoke gets in your eyes.”

They say it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. I agree – heck, I think Cleopatra and Madeleine, Anne Boleyn and even Eve all agree as well. It is what we do in the name of love that defines us as humans, weak and fragile at times, but so resilient and brave at others. And no matter where we are in the world, to what culture we belong or what faith we call our own, there’s no denying that the greatest thrill of all is to hear someone say “I love you” . No, wait; the greatest thrill of all is to SAY “I love you” and see that special someone light up like a beacon.

Here’s to love, people. Here’s to the bubbly fizzy feeling that has you dancing on the spot, here’s to the mellow contentment of belonging together. To love – or as dear old Julius would have cooed to pretty Cleopatra, Amor Vincit Omnia. Except, of course, it doesn’t, as evidenced by Holofernes and Samson, Helena and Cleopatra. And yet…Oh,yes: and yet.

Eternity is a long, long time – but we only have now

Spending time with second son is always something of an intellectual stretch, often ending with hubby and I staring at each other and wondering where on earth second son came from. Okay, okay: we know where he came from. We even have a pretty good idea just when he was conceived, but there was no sudden burst of stars at that critical moment, nor did his birth have us breaking out in song. It’s sort of difficult to sing and push at the same time, and hubby is tone-deaf and has too much self-preservation to risk humming as I was labouring. Whatever the case, second son is something of an enigma to us – he thinks so out of the box the rest of his family have a hard time keeping up.

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Lucas Cranach, The Tree of Knowledge

Second son is also one of those people who are constantly expanding their knowledge. For a light summer read, second son chooses “The Wealth of Nations” followed by an treatise on Chinese history. He is just as happy discussing details in Roman history as he is explaining the inexplicable world of genetic algorhythms to his mother, and as he not only reads a lot, but also seems to listen to hours and hours of obscure podcasts, he can bring up the most amazing topics over tea and cake. Like immortality.

In this case, it all started with a discussion about Elon Musk and his somewhat dark view of what the advent of advanced artificial intelligence (AI) may mean for us humans. As per Musk, AI & digitalisation will lead to a huge reduction in “simple” jobs such as driving cars, lorries, buses, trains, working on production lines & whatnot, and as a consequence a lot of people will lose their income. This is a view Musk shares with many, which is why there is an increasing discussion about the need of implementing some sort of citizen’s wage. I can just imagine how difficult it will be to get such a system in place. Plus, I’m not so sure human beings benefit from passivity.

Anyway, in the midst of this debate, we ended up discussing somewhat more theoretical concepts such as artificial intelligence taking over, the challenges of living in a world where more and more people would likely make it to a hundred. This is when second son stole the last piece of cake and casually said that soon enough, eternal life would be a possibility.
“Round the corner,” he said. “It’s just a matter of locking down the way our cells replace themselves.” Fortunately, it’s not exactly round the corner. There’s a huge gap between understanding that if we can only find a way to stimulate old and tired cells to continue replacing themselves we can live for ever to actually doing it. Phew.

I’m not sure eternal life is something to aspire to. Isn’t life as precious as it is precisely because it is finite? And can you imagine the tensions it would cause in society when all these ancient peeps insisted on remaining alive, thereby shortchanging future generations? Plus any “eternity treatment” would probably be very expensive, which means it would be a person’s wealth rather than their moral attributes that would decide whether they would live forever, yes or no. In the world we presently inhabit there are quite a few very rich people with exceedingly low morals who, I believe, would be more than thrilled at extending their lifespan to the detriment of humanity in general. Not exactly a scenario I find particularly palatable.

Second son shrugged. “The technology will be there at some point. Just as we already have the technology to tamper with the DNA of unborn babies.” Yeah, we do. And it is a great thing if such technologies can be used to eradicate genetic diseases. It is not quite as good a thing if those technologies are used to “enhance” those future babies so that they all develop into tall, athletic, handsome blue-eyed and blond people. Or brown-eyed and dark haired. Second son nodded in agreement before stating that nature had a tendency to balance things out.

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Photo Rsika (Creative Commons)

“Think of the banana,” he said, and I must admit my response to that was “Eh?”
“The banana,” he repeated patiently. “It used to be all bananas more or less were of a type known as the Gros Michel, but back in the 1950s, a fungus disease wiped out all Gros Michel bananas. A major catastrophe for the banana world, the result of all those bananas sharing the same DNA. If we start tampering with human embryos so as to make them fit one mould, chances are their DNA will also be very similar, which in turn would make the population very susceptible to certain types of epidemics.”
“Ah.”
“What we need to do is understand – or at least attempt to comprehend – just how radical the possibilities offered by new technologies will be – and start thinking about legislation to ensure all this new stuff isn’t misused,” second son continued.
“Would it be misuse to pay for eternal life?” I asked, visualising a number of men (yes, mostly rich white men with a narcissistic streak) sitting around sipping at some grossly expensive elixir.
“Probably not.” Second son stretched. “But the concept of eternal life and the reality of it are two very different things. Imagine living on and on while your friends die, your family dies, the world changes and no one can anymore understand your references to the music of your youth, or the events that shaped you.” He tapped his head. “That way lies insanity.”

I am prone to agree. While we may one day be able to tamper with our bodies so as to offer an endless lifespan, I’m not so sure our mental capacities would be as adaptable. Eternity is a long, long time to spend alive. Boredom would likely set in. Severe boredom, the type that makes you depressed enough to throw yourself in front of a train or off a house. If you live long enough, likely you’ll spend most of your time considering just how to stop living.

eternity Science_fiction_quarterly_195611Very many years ago, I was a big fan of Isaac Asimov’s short stories. One of them has stayed with me through life, and is a rather short thing called The Last Answer. It tells the story of atheist Templeton who dies of a heart attack and ends up as a cognitive presence in the hereafter, his only purpose being to think thoughts that will amuse The Voice, an ancient, immensely powerful intellect that can easily think up amusing things all on his own. So goaded is Templeton by the futility of this continued existence at  The Voice’s behest that he decides to think up a way to destroy it. Which is precisely what The Voice wants him to do… (Great short story, BTW, as is the companion piece, The Last Question)

I guess Asimov and I shared a common perception as to how horrible eternal life could be…

No, no eternal life for me – at least not here on earth. I wouldn’t mind several more years, though, just as I wouldn’t mind miraculously shedding like 15 kilos, growing a couple of inches and wake up to long, thick hair the colour of a rippling rye-field. Probably won’t happen, and I’m okay with that too.

IMG_0199But when it is time for me to go, I am sure there is something on the other side. (And yes, I realise I am being inconsistent here: but this would be another life, not an ever-extended life)  I must admit to hoping for gambolling lambs and green pastures, ever-replenished teapots and warm apple pie and an endless supply of Belgian chocolate. And hubby to hold my hand, but when I say that hubby just smiles and shakes his head, reminding me that he doesn’t believe in stuff like that. He is planning on returning as a bluebell.
“Or a lupin, seeing as you love them so much,” he says with a smile that grows softer when he sees the tears in my eyes. Eternity without him seems sort of pointless, actually. That makes him lean forward to kiss my brow.

Ultimately, all we have is now. As yet, there is no elixir that adds years to our lives, no magical rejuvenation that has us springing out of bed at eighty while feeling twenty-five. Tomorrow there may be, and humanity will collectively have to address the challenges poised by such an invention. But for now, grab hold of your life and savour it. Life is short, and no matter how many gambolling lambs may be waiting in the afterlife, only this life is a certainty. Live it to the full, people. Marvel at the world that surrounds us, walk barefoot through dewy grass, wade along the seashore under a starlit sky. And when you see a bluebell – or a lupin – stop for a moment and consider just how lucky you are. You are alive. Not bad, hey?

A bouquet of ladies

In celebration of the International Women’s Day, I’ve decided to throw the doors of my blog—for the day known as my salon—wide open to some of my favourite historical ladies:

christina_queen_of_sweden_1644-1654_-_google_art_projectQueen Kristina of Sweden is a 17th century lady who was born so hirsute the midwives first declared her a boy only to then discover the babe was a girl. It is said they quaked at the thought of telling Kristina’s father the truth, but I am glad to report Gustav II Adolf was a progressive man in many respects, including being delighted at having a healthy daughter. Kristina’s mother was far from delighted: a daughter was a major, major disappointment in her book. Kristina became queen at the tender age of six, ruled in her own right from her 21st birthday or so, and abdicated at 28, sick and tired of all this queen stuff (Well, the fact that she was considering converting to Catholicism probably affected her decision. Being a Catholic in fiercely Protestant Sweden came with its own risks).

Isabella w Hugh D the eder & Earl of ArundelMy second visitor is Queen Isabella, born some 330 years before Kristina. The only daughter of Philippe IV of France (a.k.a. le Bel), Isabella is reputed to have been incredibly beautiful – and very well-educated. A smart mover and shaker, this is the lady who colluded with Roger Mortimer and deposed Edward II, Isabella’s not-so-loved husband. (At the time: prior to her falling out with hubby, she’d been more or less happily married to him for 16 years or so)

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Berenguela’s mum & dad

Our third visitor is Berenguela of Castile, daughter of Alfonso VIII and Eleanor of England, granddaughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Seeing as all her brothers died young, Berenguela ended up inheriting her father’s kingdom, abdicated in favour of her young son so as to appease the machismo of her Castilian nobles and proceeded to call the shots for the rest of her life—albeit working with her son rather than against him. It is to Fernando’s great credit that he always respected and valued his mother’s input.

Now that the introductions are over, let’s all settle in and get cosy. And no, you need not worry: I have not dug them up and dragged them here in all their decomposed glory, instead I am inviting them as they appear in my head, very much alive and kicking. That is one of the drawbacks of spending too much time with my nose stuck in history: these long-gone women are in many ways as real to me as some of the people I meet on a daily basis. Not so that I hold long conversations with them while waiting for my print-outs (actually, yes I do—but only in my head), but I invest a lot of time and effort in trying to recreate these ladies based on what historical records we may have.

“God, how you go on!” Queen Kristina of Sweden looks me up and down before throwing herself backwards into an armchair.
“Amen to that.” Isabella of France glides over the floor. “And really, Kristina, must you sit like that? So unladylike!”
“You’re not my mother,” Queen Kristina retorts, but straightens up all the same, hands patting at her curly hair before adjusting her lace collar. Isabella is an intimidating lady—even to a fellow queen—and she is also, as always, perfectly attired, a combination of kirtle and robes in various shades of pink complemented by a sheer veil and a mantel in embroidered purple.
“Byzantine,” Isabella informs me, smoothing at the rich cloth.
Christina_of_Sweden_(1626)_1667_attributed_to_W._Heimbach“Expensive,” Kristina remarks drily, shaking out her dark skirts.
“What can I say? I’m French, non?” (Mais oui. Isabella is as French as they come)
“You’re vain, child,” Berenguela of Castile cuts in. No pinks and purples for this rather daunting matriarch. Berenguela’s face is framed by veil and wimple, her clothes dark and unadorned.
“I’m not a child,” Isabella sniffs.
“You are to me. You’re married to my great-grandson.” Berenguela frowns. “You don’t treat him as respectfully as you should.”
“Edward?” Isabella snorts. “You expect me to respect a man who stole my dower lands? Who evicted most of my household? Who prefers the company of Hugh Despenser to mine?”
“He’s your husband. Where he leads, you should follow.” Berenguela looks down her nose at Isabella.
“Oh, as you did, you mean?”
“An entirely different matter! The pope annulled our marriage, and…”
“Right, stop it,” I interrupt. I gesture towards the table. “I was thinking we would have tea and cake while discussing the situation of women in your times and mine.”
“Tea?” Isabella asks, sniffing suspiciously at her cup.
“Cake?” Kristina sounds hopeful.
“The situation of women?” Berenguela sits down and shakes her head at the offered cake. “Has it changed, do you think?”
I almost choke on my tea. “I sure hope so. Woman is no longer subservient to man.”
“Hmm.” Berenguela shares a look with the other two. “I was never subservient to a man. I was a ruler in my own right.”
“As was I.” Kristina reaches for some more cake. “Raised to be a king, not some insipid female.”
“Who says females are insipid?” Isabella says. “Just because I was queen consort, doesn’t mean I didn’t wield power.”
“Oh, you did?” Berenguela murmurs, eyes on her cup. “I thought it was Edward and Hugh who did the wielding. In difference to me and Kristina here.”
“Well, at least my children aren’t illegitimate,” Isabella snaps.
Berenguela bristles. “They’ve been legitimized! Besides, who cares? My son is a saint!”
“So say all mothers,” Isabella snorted.
“Umm, in this case she’s telling the truth,” Kristina breaks in. “San Fernando is quite the impressive man.” She pats Isabella’s arm. “As is your son—well, he will be, once he’s grown up.” She shudders. “Though how on earth either of you could go through with all that giving birth stuff is beyond me.”
“No choice,” Berenguela says. “As you make your bed, you must lie in it.”
“Not anymore,” Kristina says. “In the here and now, women have the means to make the bed without the lie-in. I’m right, aren’t I?” she demands, turning my way.
“Yup.”
“And women can even have children without ever having had a man in their bed,” Kristina continues. “Sounds perfect to me – makes man redundant.”

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Edward II – hot stuff as per Isabella

“What, all work no play?” Isabella grimaces. “I like bedding with my husband. Well, I did until he stopped bedding with me. If only that dratted Hugh…”
“Maybe Eduardo thinks you’ve lost your looks,” Berenguela says, and Isabella grips her teaspoon as if considering just how to murder this Spanish Doña with it.
“If she’s lost her looks, I’ve never had any,” Kristina puts in. She shrugs. “Not that I care. I’ve never wanted to marry anyway.”
“Wanted?” Berenguela says. “I was never given a choice in the matter.”
“Neither was I, “Isabella puts in, and they share a look over the table. “That’s the lot of a princess, to marry as it suits her father and her country.”
“Amen to that,” Berenguela puts in, crossing herself hastily.
“Fortunately, by the time I was of marriageable age, my father was long dead, so I was spared the experience,” Kristina says, but she looks a bit sad, and I wonder if maybe she’s thinking of the love of her life, Cardinal Azzolini. (And yes, that was complicated)
“These days, no one forces a woman to marry,” I put in.
Berenguela raises her brows. “What about doing her duty to her family?”
“We don’t believe in stuff like that,” I reply. “Individuals first, you know.”
“How terrible,” Berenguela says. “Family is everything! Everything!”
Oui!” Isabella chimes in. “And the best family is the Capet family.”
“Silly goose,” Berenguela says. “You have my blood in your veins, much better than that diluted Capet stuff. We are family…”
“…I have all my sisters with me,” Kristina sings, and the three of them are out of their seats and dancing like crazy.
“I must hand it to these modern people, they do know how to write some good tunes,” Kristina gasps some minutes later, fanning herself with a book.
“And bake cake,” Isabella adds, nabbing the last piece on the plate.
“Would you prefer this time to your time?” I ask. “You know, a world of comfort, of hot baths and washing machines.”
baths medieval-bath-3-650x487“We have hot baths,” Berenguela points out.
“And who needs washing machines when there are laundry maids?” Isabella asks. Kristina and Berenguela nod in agreement. These overprivileged women have never as much as washed a sock – or darned a hole. They’ve embroidered for fun—well, not Kristina. Not her thing.
“But what about books? Education?”
“I am extremely well-educated, thank you very much,” Kristina sniffs. (She is. Horribly so)
“As am I. Private tutors, endless amounts of Latin texts…” Isabella yawns.
“Scripture. I know it in and out,” Berenguela says.
“Ah.” I nod. “So nothing tempts you in the here and now?”
“Of course, it does,” Berenguela says, “but we belong where we belong, with our families, our kin…”
“…our lovers, our ambitions,” Isabella fills in.
“…our misguided decisions and our regrets,” Kristina finishes.
“Regrets?” Berenguela asks.
“Oh yes. Being an ex-queen is substantially less fun than being the real thing.” Kristina gives a crooked smile. “But I guess we all have to live with the decisions we make—no matter in what time.”
Very true. And in my time, someone is banging at the door and asking where I have the latest ppt presentation. Time to leave this time transcending tea party and return to real life, a life sadly devoid of strong historical women.
No seas tonta,” Berenguela says. “We’re right here, with you. Now, if you explain what a ppt is, then maybe we can help.”
Er… Mind you, with these savvy ladies one never knows!

The perfection of imperfection

20170301_094357In my office, I have a mug from which I drink my tea. It’s a nice mug, handmade and in a dark, dark red – very much an Anna mug. It has an ear to hold it by, but when I drink tea, I like cradling the mug, hold its warmth in my hands. Whenever I do so, one of my fingers will automatically stray to the flaw in my mug: right at the base, there’s a point where the clay broke off or the mug was chipped between firing and glazing. About one centimetre wide, the imperfection has jagged edges. I run my finger back and forth over it – repeatedly. It is soothing, somehow.

While not all of you may have a tea mug like mine, I bet you’ve all had a loose tooth—or a cavity or a blister in your mouth, or a seed stuck between your teeth. And I bet all of you have run your tongue over whatever the defect may have been. The imperfection attracts, so to say.

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Perfection is rarely alluring. That picture-perfect home, in which the tassels line up in regimental order, the pillows are plumped just so, the tables and shelves are dustless—it comes across as stiff and cold. Life has not left its mark on the sofa cushions, there isn’t any indication of anyone ever having breathed and laughed—even danced—in this beautiful space. It doesn’t tell us anything about the owner—beyond them suffering from OCD—it is just a reflecting surface, anonymous and cold. Until we add a book turned upside down on the coffee table, a hoodie thrown in the sofa. An arrangement of tulips that is well beyond its best before date spilling pollen and faded petals on the floor. A plate with a half-eaten sandwich, the bread dry enough to crumble at the touch. Signs of life, of time passing. And life is rarely perfect, is it?

I suppose it is mostly a matter of contrast: we need the slight imperfection to appreciate the beauty that surrounds it. Or maybe it’s as simple as perfection being a bit boring. A slightly crooked nose in an otherwise picture-perfect face makes the whole more interesting, teases us with various scenarios as to why it is crooked.
A mole—essentially a defect—may instead highlight the lustre of the skin that surrounds it.
The uprooted tree that leans drunkenly against its soughing neighbour serves to underline that life is ephemeral—thereby making it more precious.
A rose in full bloom is breathtakingly beautiful – but it is already tainted by decay, a faint line of brown edging its perfection.

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Kintsugi – the art of making imperfections into perfection (Image Wikipedia)

In some cultures, the irregularities, the cracks, are appreciated. In Japan, broken porcelain bowls were often repaired in such a way as to highlight the crack, resulting in creations that are beautiful because of their defects, not despite of them. Sometimes, they fill in the cracks with gold, and what was broken and ugly is elevated to finest art. Maybe an approach we should learn something from, all of us who live in a world that is increasingly fixated on outward perfection, all the way from ourselves to our homes, our gardens, our cars.

It’s not as if anyone is perfect. No matter how hard we work at our exterior, we all have our warts, our hidden cracks. It’s what makes us human, what makes us interesting and unique. It’s what makes my tea mug mine. Its little defect is what sets it apart, makes it immediately distinguishable from other dark red tea mugs. I like that it is different – I like that I am different, that I am me, even if that is mostly due to my many imperfections than my (very) few perfections. Rephrase: it’s the sum of my imperfections that makes me perfectly me!

Below in the comments Gabriel has weighed in with a link to a beautiful poem about cracks and their consequences. The poem is by René François Armand Sully-Prudhomme (quite a mouthful), a French poet who was the first ever winner of the Nobel prize back in 1901. Anyway: I think the link may well get lost in the comments so I post it here instead and urge you to pop over to the site and read it. Very beautiful. http://www.onbeing.org/uncategorized/le-vase-brise-broken-vase/

 

 

Falling forward – a reflection on evolution

The other day, I was listening to a radio programme about the deficiency of our basic design. “Our” in this case being us humans. It seems that the biped descendant of those very ancient primates that is modern human has as yet to fully master the challenge of walking without falling over.

Research has been conducted on young healthy people and their walking mishaps (the scientists have given up on the rest of us, unstable wrecks that we are). Turns out that even these prime specimens have a tendency to fall over. More than 50% report falling over on a regular basis – mostly due to stumbling over their own feet. Note that the participants were all sober, and the falling over incidents were not restricted to midnight walks through forests. Nope. Bright daylight, even ground beneath, and still our young and healthy representatives fell. A lot.

Maybe it’s not the two legs that’s the problem. Maybe it’s our feet. Maybe we, as a species, have been burdened with feet that stick out too much. The scientists disagree. There’s nothing wrong with our feet, they say. Instead, our overall stability would have been much, much better had we continued to walk on all four, dragging our knuckles along the ground. Not exactly a surprising conclusion.

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Moonlight Sonata, R.A Blakelock

Thing is, had we not dared to let go of the ground and rise on our (then) hind legs, we might have been less prone to falling, but we would also have been much, much dumber than we are today. Once primitive man lifted his eyes off the ground to view the world at large, to stare at the moon and stars above, something began happening in his brain, further stimulated by the fact that now that he wasn’t walking on his hands, he could use them for other things. Like making rudimentary tools. Or picking fruits and berries. (Or lice. Plenty of lice to pick off our ancient ancestors’ hairy frames)

Obviously, Homo Erectus was not aware of the “small step for man, huge leap for mankind” he represented. Here was a hirsute creature, standing on his two feet and regarding his surroundings from a sufficient height to discover threats before they discovered him – a good thing, seeing as our ancient forebears had little with which to defend themselves against, f.ex, a hungry leopard. I’m guessing this is where the tool development took off. Hungry leopard drops down on biped. Biped falls to the ground. Long fingers find purchase round a rock. Biped frantically hits hungry leopard over the head with rock. Leopard very surprised, lets go. Biped lives to see another day. Phew.

From rock to bash leopard with, progress was probably quick, all the way to that day when a very thin, very sharp sliver of flint was used to do some basic hair removal. “Oooo! Look at my legs,” cooed Mrs Homo Erectus, “all smooth and unhairy.” (I’m not sure we should be grateful to her, BTW) Somewhat more seriously, making tools had a huge impact on our intellectual capacity. It requires intelligence to fashion a lump of rock into something – specifically, it requires a vision, the capacity to see what it will be once it is done.

Our tool-making forefather had thereby moved into the realm of conceptual thinking. Once you can look at an unshaped lump of rock and think “hmm, that would make a great hand-axe. All I need is to chip a bit here, and there, and then…” the step towards considering the future, where we might come from and where we might end up, is not that big. Yes, Homo Erectus may have been a bit unsteady on the ground, but his brain was expanding at an impressive speed.

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Moonlight on the Fens by G Coulson

So when next you stumble over your own two feet (and no, it’s not the feet’s fault: that has been scientifically proven) remember that this is the very, very small price you pay for being able to crane your head back to look at the night sky and wonder about life on Mars. Or listen to a Beethoven symphony. Or lose ourselves in art by men like Blakelock and Coulson. Mind you, Homo Erectus would probably not have appreciated the art. Or the music. And he had never heard of Mars. But he was thrilled to bits at having survived that leopard attack!

Love unto death and beyond

Come, bitter conduct, come, unsavoury guide!
Thou desperate pilot, now at once run on
The dashing rocks thy sea-sick weary bark!
Here’s to my love!
(Drinks.)
O true apothecary!
Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die

And so Romeo brushed his lips against Juliet’s and died, preferring death to living without her. A very sad end, Mr Shakespeare, one that would not have gone down well with publishers of Romance, as such publishers (and such readers) much prefer a Happily Ever After, an alternative ending in which Romeo sits up and says “Nah, I was just kidding”, except, of course, that it wouldn’t have worked. Plus, the love story with the tragic ending is much more enduring than the one with the pink fluffy clouds.

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Don Afonso

Such love stories have been around since man first began telling stories – and sometimes, the story wasn’t a story, but rather a real-life drama. Like the tale I’m going to tell you today. I might as well warn you right from the beginning that there is no HEA. Nope. Not my fault, mind you. Instead, you should blame King Afonso IV of Portugal, except that he would tell you he did as he had to do to safeguard his realm. Or so he thought.

But let us start at the beginning, and to do so I think we must start in 1320, when the not-as-yet-king Don Afonso and his wife, Beatriz, welcomed a third son into the world. In difference to his brothers, little Pedro thrived, and Don Afonso could relax. He had an heir—at last.

Don Afonso did not only have sons—he had daughters as well, and the eldest, Maria, was married to Alfonso XI of Castile. An unhappy marriage, especially once Alfonso had clapped eyes on Leonor de Guzmán, thereby more or less abandoning his wife and their little son to spend all his time with Leonor and their children. Obviously, Don Afonso was very upset by all this, and he must have had days when he deeply regretted having given his daughter in marriage to such a cad. (I’m not so sure Alfonso XI was a cad: I think he just fell in love. More about all this and Leonor’s inevitable fate can be found here)

Even worse from Don Afonos’s perspective, Maria’s bridegroom had been married elsewhere when Don Afonso convinced Alfonso XI to wed Maria instead. This was sorted by Alfonso dissolving his first marriage. The jilted (and very young) bride, Constanza Manuel, had a VERY aggravated father, and so for years Don Afonso had been embroiled in a feud with Juan Manuel, Constanza’s father. However, as the years passed, Don Afonso and Juan Manuel found a common enemy in Alfonso XI: Afonso because of how his Maria was being treated, Juan Manuel because of how his Constanza had been treated.

The two fathers struck an alliance, and what better way to celebrate such an event than have Don Afonso’s son, Pedro, wed Constanza? Everyone—including the prospective groom—felt this was a good thing. Well, until Constanza and her entourage arrived in Portugal, that is. Because you see, among Constanza’s ladies was a certain Inés de Castro, and Pedro took one look and was lost, falling irrevocably in love with this beautiful Galician lady.

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Pedro and Inés

The marriage went ahead as planned. There must have been some affinity between the newly-weds, and soon enough Constanza was pregnant. But the woman Pedro spent his time with was Inés. It was with Inés he shared his dreams, it was in Inés’ ear he whispered sweet nothings, and poor Constanza was neglected and unhappy, albeit that she gave birth to three babies before she died in 1345, just six years after her marriage.

Don Afonso was anything but delighted with his son’s infatuation. First of all, he detested that his own son was treating his wife as shabbily as dear daughter Maria was being treated by her husband. Secondly, with Inés came her brothers, and Afonso didn’t like it, how Pedro fell under the influence of these Castilians. Thirdly, upon Constanza’s death, he worried that the little legitimate heir, Fernando, was puny and weak. What if Inés was to give Pedro a son, would Pedro prefer his lover’s son to his first-born?

The obvious solution to all this worrying would have been for Don Afonso to acquiesce when Pedro asked for his permission to marry Inés once Constanza was dead. But Don Afonso said no – he didn’t want to aggravate Constanza’s father, he felt Inés was well below Pedro, and he most definitely disliked the de Castro brothers. Instead, he proposed that his son find himself a new, royal bride. Not about to happen, Pedro told him. It was Inés or no one.

In response, Don Afonso supposedly had Inés sequestered in a convent. That didn’t stop Pedro, who spent his days roaming the lands abutting the convent and sending his beloved letters in bark boats that he floated across a river that separated convent land from the rest of the world. Inés managed to escape the convent (or more likely, the nuns just let her go, not quite relishing their role of jailors to the mistress of the future king) and Inés and Pedro set up house together. In secret, of course.

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Pedro

Inés was not welcome at court, and accordingly Pedro was not much at court either, the rift between him and his father widening into a chasm. Even worse from Don Afonso’s point of view, Inés presented Pedro with several healthy children, among which were two little sons. Something had to be done to safeguard Portugal from potential civil war (or so Afonso thought, assuming Pedro would prefer his sons by Inés to his son by Constanza. Turned out Pedro didn’t) Desperate measures were required to put a stop to Inés’ influence over Pedro.

There are two versions as to what to happened that January of 1355 – or rather where it happened. As per the romantic legend, the desperate king and his three accomplices waited until Pedro was out hunting before descending on Inés who sitting by the fountain in her patio. As per other versions, Inés was detained in a convent, and the king and his companions visited her there.

Whatever the case, these visitors did not come bearing gifts. No, they came with steel hidden under their mantels, and their intention was to kill the Castilian whore and thereby free Pedro from whatever emotional bonds he had forged with Inés.

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Inés pleading for her life (Karl Bruillon)

Inés was with her children when the king burst upon them. She prostrated herself before Don Afonso and begged for her life, for the life of their children. Apparently, the king was sufficiently touched to depart, leaving his trusted men to do the dirty job themselves. There was no mercy for Inés. Instead, she was brutally killed in front of her children, the final blow decapitating her.

If Don Afonso had thought this foul act would have Pedro crawling back home, he had seriously misjudged his son (duh!) Pedro was enraged, his grief taking on teeth and claws that he turned upon his father. At the head of a growing band of armed men, he harried Portugal from one end to the other, and the civil war Don Afonso had so wanted to avoid became a reality as a consequence of his own machinations.

In 1357, father and son were reconciled – well, sort of. Pedro never forgave his father for his heinous deed, but a truce was reached. Some months later, Don Afonso died, making Pedro king of Portugal.

His first act was to arrest the men who had killed his beloved Inés (two of them, the third managed to escape) and had them put to death most horrendously. Legend has it that Pedro himself tore their beating hearts out of their chests, saying it was only fair that they should feel what it was like to lose their hearts, seeing as they’d robbed Pedro of his heart by killing Inés. Whether this is true or not is difficult to ascertain at a distance of seven centuries. What is undisputed is that Pedro had the two murderers executed.

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A dead Inés on her throne.

Pedro also announced that he had married Inés in secret before she died – contrary to his father’s wishes. There is no surviving proof of such a wedding, not entirely unsurprising seeing as it was a secret wedding, and to this day we only have Pedro’s word for it ever taking place. Don Afonso wasn’t around to object, and so Pedro proclaimed his wife posthumous queen of Portugal. As per the more lurid version of the Inés-Pedro story, Pedro decided to subject his nobles to one final humiliation: he had his beloved Inés disinterred and sat her remains upon a throne after which his nobles had to do homage to the corpse and kiss its hand. Hmm.

Whether the above somewhat macabre anecdote is true or not, Pedro did disinter Inés and had her reburied in state in the Alcobaca monastery. Their tombs stand close together, their effigies facing each other. And as a final gesture to his beloved woman, Pedro had both tombs inscribed with the following: Até o fin do mundo –Until the end of the world.

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Inés spectacular tomb

Let us start as we began, by quoting the words of the Bard, albeit somewhat paraphrased: For never was there a story of more woe, than this of Inés and her Pedro. And in difference to Romeo and Juliet, Inés and Pedro were real persons, people who lived and loved and hoped and dreamed – until that long gone day in January of 1355 when Inés was brutally hacked to death in front of her children. Sad, isn’t it? Which is why I hope that now and then when the church in which they lie is draped in darkness, they whisper to each other.
“Are you there?” he asks.
“Always,” she whispers back.
“Until the end of time,” they say simultaneously, and for an instant the air around their tombs shimmers with golden light.

The whole world in His hands

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The Holy family, Murillo

Lately, I’ve been pondering the word “Christian”. Not Christian as in “yes, I belong to the Christian faith”, more Christian in “I am a Christian” (with a lot of emphasis on the italicised word) , which, as far as I can tell, means the person in question goes to church regularly and studied his/her bible frequently. This in difference to those who are of the Christian denomination by rote, eg they were baptized as Christians but don’t have their lives revolving around their faith. Now, before I go any further, there are a lot of active Christians out there (some of which I count as dear friends) who are very good people – which is fortunate, seeing as anyone defining themselves as “Christian first” have a lot to live up to.

You see, if a person presents themselves as “Christian”, my expectations on that person are that they will live up to the most basic of Christian tenets, namely charity. These last few days, I see a lot of stuff being presented as being part of “Christian” values, but I see little indication of this being done out of an encompassing, altruistic endeavor. Stopping refugees at the borders has little to do with altruism, far more to do with promoting a “we” and “them” take on the world, as does pushing your own “moral” agenda down the throat of people with fundamentally different beliefs. As does pointing fingers at those among us who refuse to be defined by their gender in everything from who they have sex with to how they dress.

I don’t go to church regularly, nor do I read my bible all that often. I do, however, struggle daily with being a good person, even if at times that means sharing when I don’t want to, helping when I don’t have time. I try. Often, I fail. But I try—hard—to live as per the most important message in the New Testament, namely “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

ehfa-westminster-retablePlease note that others in the above sentence isn’t qualified. It doesn’t say “Do unto other Christians as you would have others do unto you.” Nor does it say “Do unto others who are like you as you would have others do unto you.” It just says “others”, which reasonably must be interpreted as meaning the entire human race. All of us, no matter race, gender or creed. It would seem Jesus really did believe in having the whole world in His hands.

So, now that we’ve established that “others” means others as in stepping-out-of-our-comfort-zone others, maybe we should analyse the rest of the sentence.

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. If you slip on a patch of ice and fall, you’d like someone to help you up, right? So it follows that if you see someone slipping, you should hasten forward to pull them back up on their feet. Life is not always a walk in the park. There is plenty of ice out there, metaphorically speaking. One very nasty patch of ice is called war, and at present the world has I don’t know how many millions of people fleeing their homelands and the life they’ve known—not because they want to, but because they have to. They’ve slipped pretty badly, one could say, and as good human beings, and definitely as a Christian, we have an obligation to give them a helping hand. After all, it could be us out there, stuck in a patched tent with UN rations the only thing keeping starvation at bay.

slide1When people are in need, it shouldn’t matter if they’re Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or walk about dyed blue, or wear nothing but a loin cloth. It shouldn’t matter if they’re young or old, if they’re male or female. They need help. It is part of basic decency to offer it.

When some among us choose to live in same-sex relationships, this is not ground for condemnation, no matter what Leviticus might have to say on the matter. By the time Jesus came round, Leviticus was OLD stuff, probably severely outdated even back then. Besides, how on earth can anyone purporting to believe in Jesus condemn someone for loving? A good Christian should, IMO, show toleration and respect. A good Christian should, once again IMO, defend every person’s right to find happiness where they can find it – as long as they do not cause anyone else harm. A good Christian should remember “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” and reflect on the fact that there could come a time when they’re in minority. Surely, they’d want to be respected and tolerated by the surrounding majority who chose to live/believe differently from them, right?

Had He not been resurrected, I think Jesus would have been spinning like a top in the grave, groaning out loud at all the people who take His name in vain. Because that’s what you do if you loudly proclaim yourself a Christian but lack in charity and compassion. Once in heaven, Jesus won’t be all that impressed by hearing about bible-reading and church-going. It’s the actions that count, and He’ll want to know about what you did, how you contributed to alleviate the suffering of those who have little – or nothing at all.

So if you’re going to present yourself as “Christian”, please do some loving. And caring. Be tolerant and supportive. Extend that hand of yours and help, no matter who it is that has slipped on the ice.

hand-20170205_142546Actually, all of this is valid no matter what you might believe in. So let me rephrase: be a GOOD person, okay? Or try to be. The world needs good people—now more than ever. It needs us to care, to defend those who are weaker, to stand up for everyone’s right to be treated with respect. It needs us to show some basic decency and remember that the human condition is a global condition. It needs those of us who’ve attended Sunday school in those distant days of our childhood to hum “black and yellow, red and white, they’re all precious in His sight” and remember that the similarities that bind us are far, far greater than the differences.
You are my brother/sister. Here’s my hand if you need it!

Me and them – a beleaguered writer and her characters

It is strange with characters: once you’ve created them, they never go away. Not even when you’re no longer writing about them, but have moved over to other invented loves. They lurk in your head, mostly as silent shadows of themselves, now and then substantially more vociferous.

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Apparently, not the last…

“Just because you’re done with us, doesn’t mean we’re done with you,” Alex Graham tells me, graciously accepting a cup of tea. (Now and then, we have these intense tea sessions in my head: all my characters and me. Like a major reunion…)
“Really? I’d never have guessed,” I reply. For the last few weeks, Alex and her 17th century hubby have been very active in my brain. So actiove, in fact, that I’ve written another 110 000 words about them. And here was I, thinking To Catch a Falling Star was the last in The Graham Saga.
“What do you expect?” Matthew asks, looking up from where he’s mending a rake. “We still have plenty of life left to us, and surely you must sympathise with our need to find out what happens to our bairns, our friends?”
I do. Heck, I want to find out too. It’s just that at present, I am mostly with Adam and Kit and the struggles they’re facing in 14th century England. Or with Jason and Helle, as we speak facing off with their own personal nemesis.
“Yes, please get on with that, would you?” Jason says, an accusing expression in his bloodied face. “You can’t leave us here, dangling between life and death for much longer.”
“Sorry.” I hand him a big cup of tea – and a huge slice of chocolate cake which he promptly passes to Helle. Jason doesn’t do sweet stuff. He’s into broccoli and chicken and other healthy stuff. “You’re making me sound very boring,” he says, those amber eyes of his giving me an accusing look.

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Coming 2017…

So maybe I should add that he’s very, very old, remembers most of his 50 odd lives, and has the most amazing mahogany coloured hair. Plus he’s been looking for Helle in each and every one of those lives with like zero success rate except for the life when he found her floating dead in Paris—and this one.
“A very persevering man.” Helle drags her blonde curls off her face, revealing that she too is looking the worse for wear. “Look, could you please just finish this scene before I catch my death of a cold and die?” Oh, right: she’s soaked. And if I were her, I’d be more worried about drowning.
“She can’t swim?” Kit asks, eyeing Helle over the rim of her mug. My 14th century leading lady stays close to her man, the green of her kirtle complementing her blue eyes. And her red hair, except that she isn’t showing us any hair, neatly veiled as behoves a modest wife.
“Modest?” Adam chuckles. “Haven’t you heard what she did to save me from certain death?”
Err, yes, I have. I wrote it, remember? Central scene in In the Shadow of the Storm… “Ah, aye, so you did.” He looks a bit confused. “But tell me, is it you that writes in which direction things will go, or is it we who direct you what to write?”
“I can swim,” Helle pipes up before I can reply to Adam’s question. “But I’m no fan of deep water.”
“And yet there is no need to swim in the shallows,” Kit replies. She nibbles daintily at her chocolate cake. “What is this?”
“Something as yet not discovered back in your time,” Alex tells her. “Just making a name for itself in our time.”
“Our time?” Helle leans forward. “I thought you were from my time.”
“I was.” Alex smiles at Matthew and squeezes his hand. “But now his time is my time.” She fixes me with one of those death-ray looks she uses to quell her many children. “You could have chosen a time with more modern comforts.”
“Sorry.” I jerk my thumb at Matthew. “He was in the 17th century. That’s where he belongs, rooted to his time in a way you’re not.”
“Aye,” Matthew says. “I prefer not being dragged through time.” He nods at Adam. “What do you think?”

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The next Adam & Kit book, coming in April

“Plenty of challenges in my time,” Adam replies. “I do not need to further complicate things.” He looks away.
“Will Mortimer win, do you think?” Matthew asks.
“You know, don’t you?” Adam asks.
“Aye, I do.”
“So why ask?” Adam demands, getting to his feet. “Is it to taunt me, for not knowing what to do when the lord I love as a father usurps the powers of the young king I serve and love just as much?”
Matthew clears his throat. “No, of course not.” He grasps Adam’s arm and pulls him into a rough embrace. “You’re a good man, de Guirande. Your conscience will guide you.”
“Amen to that.” Kit sets a hand to Adam’s shoulder. “And I’ll be there.”
“Nothing you can do, sweeting,” Adam tells her. He sighs. “Nothing either of us can do.” He turns my way. “How will it end?”
“Sorry. Can’t tell you.” I make a zipping gesture over my mouth.
“Bloody enervating writers,” Alex mutters, joining her husband and Adam and Kit. “Think they can decide our lives just as it pleases them.”

In the case of Roger Mortimer, I am restricted by historical facts—as I am, if to a lesser extent, when telling Matthew’s and Adam’s story. But I don’t say that out loud. Besides, when it comes to my invented characters, I rarely feel entirely in control. To answer Adam’s question, generally things turn out with me on control. Until they take a firm hold of their fates—even if it plays havoc with my initial plotline. Just as their continued presence threatens to play havoc with my sanity.

“Tsss!” Alex gives me a light shove. “Admit it, you love having us here.”
I do. Of course, I do. Without them, my head would be very empty. Sort like a huge black coffin without a corpse in it.
“You just have to accept it,” Helle says, handing me the last of the chocolate cake. “We may only exist in your head, but we’re the immortal ones here. Long after you’re gone to dust, we’ll still be around, sitting on a bookshelf or a Kindle somewhere.”

Well, that put me in my place, didn’t it? Me, the mere mortal, has spawned invented characters that potentially will outlive me. For some reason, that makes me smile before going in search of the Advil. Seriously, must they talk so much? And at the same time?

A shallow nomad

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Genghis Khan with a yurt in the background

Had I lived back in the times of Genghis Khan, I would have been one of the Mongolian wives protesting loudly whenever the horde packed up and moved on.
“Leave my yurt alone,” I’d have told the fearless Mongolian warrior who was the father of my children. “Seriously, I want to put down roots, ok? You know, il faut cultiver son jardin and all that.”

I guess my nomadic husband would just have laughed. He lived for the roaming across the steppes – as did all the Mongolians. Except for me, had I been around. I like living in one place. I like sleeping in the same bed every night. Which is why it is ironic that, as of today, I have three beds I can call my own. In three different locations.

This my most recent bed addition is due to work. I start a new, exciting job tomorrow—I’ll be commuting on a weekly basis—and I’d go crazy if I didn’t have something more permanent than a hotel to spend my evenings/nights in. So despite not having one single nomadic bone in my body, here I am: three homes. Home with a capital H is the apartment in Malmö – the one with hubby in it. This is also the address the tax authorities consider my home, and we all know that if the tax authorities say something, it is useless to disagree.

Then there’s the country house – which also comes with a capital H, seeing as every rock, every piece of timber in that place calls out to my soul. And then there’s here, in the new place. As yet, this is home with a very lower case h. Especially after the last 24 hours of excitement involving an exploding microwave oven, beeping hubs and non-working dishwasher/washing machine. Also, it takes time for a place to become home – or maybe it’s a question of what it contains…

nomads-20170113_143024For me, marking a space as my home has always been related to unpacking my books. Once the book cases are up, once I’ve dusted and sorted my babies, Anna is finally in place. Yes, I want a pic or two of my kids, it’s important the two pictures my dad painted are there, but mostly it’s my literary treasures, from Kristin Lavransdotter, through Gösta Berling’s Saga, Strindberg’s collected short stories to Somerset Maugham, my Anthony Burgess books, all my historical fiction books all the way to Miguel Cervantes, Vargas Llosa and García Marquez.

These books are pretty well-travelled. They smell of old dust, of the occasional close encounter with damp. Now and then, I find a fragile sheet of paper stuck between the pages, and some of them are heavily annotated in the margins. Some are falling apart—more or less. My Tolkien books have so much scotch tape holding their spine together, I can no longer read the titles. The same goes for my Sharon K Penman books. Doesn’t matter: I recognise them anyway. In the dark.

nomads-20170115_155102Obviously, I can’t take all my books from Home to home. That would make Home home, and I do want Home to remain being Home. So I compromised and took a couple of books with me. That helped a bit. They look a bit pathetic, standing to one side of my little bookshelf, but I comfort myself with the fact that there is room for more books. Then I went out and bought myself a new teapot-slash-thermos. That helped a bit more, as did the matching mugs. Then I bought some candlesticks, added candles, and the new place was at least a home. And I stand revealed as something of a materialist, don’t I? Things. Is that what makes a home?

I think most of us would say no. And yet all of us have homes full of things. Ah, some would say, but my things come with memories. Sure they do – some of them. My books, for example, are all tied to the memory of reading them – in some cases several times. But the lamp I bought at Ikea because it was quirky, my new teapot-slash-thermos (very pretty, crap as a teapot: form over function, peeps), the roasting pan I bought some weeks ago because the old one was simply old—they are rather a consequence of that materialistic gene, I fear. And I don’t want to be a materialist. It makes me feel shallow. Oh, God: a shallow materialist—what can possibly be worse than that? Oh, right: being a nomad.

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Mongols doing some amassing

Mind you, nomads can also be materialistic. Take, for example, that Mongolian yurt back in the 12th century, one of the many yurts following the Mongolian horde west across the steppe. This was glamping before glamping had been invented, as yurts were much more than a tent. It had walls and a door and a roof. It had carpets and pillows and furniture and, in some cases, even a floor. And as the Mongolians conquered, they amassed belongings, showing us that materialism was going strong already back then.

Come to think of it, materialism has always been going strong. Us humans have had an urge to collect things since our cave-living days. Initially, because one never knew just when that piece of flint or length of rawhide might come in useful. Over time, because he who had three flints was considered much better than he who only had one. Phew. I need not worry about being shallow—I am merely acting on instinct—which is why, of course, I just HAD to buy new satin sheets for my new apartment.

Despite the sheets and the candlesticks and the odd books, it will take time for my new home to become Home. You see, the truly fundamental part is missing: my man. And not a thing in the world can compensate for the fact that when I go to bed tonight, I’ll go to bed alone.

On the day before the day

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Carl Larsson: Christmas Eve

Us Swedes are an impatient people. Or maybe it’s the proximity to the North Pole that does it – after all, Santa has to start somewhere, and so he starts with us. On Christmas Eve. While in other parts of the Christian world it is Christmas Day that is the big thing, for us northerners the 25th is a recuperative day, spent mostly in pyjamas and with a restorative at hand. I must also hasten to add that I use “Christian world” from a cultural, rather than religious, perspective. Swedes are essentially religious only once a year, on the first Sunday of Advent, when churches throughout the land are thronged. Mostly because we all like singing the hymns we’ve been singing for hundreds of years.

Anyway: back to Christmas Eve. Many, many Swedish families have built their traditions round the hour of Disney cartoons that are shown at three in the afternoon. That’s the way it’s been since back in the sixties, and originally this was the only time of the year Swedish Television showed Disney cartoons. Back then, starry-eyes tots with water-combed hair sat and stared at Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse while the adults drank mulled wine and nibbled gingerbread biscuits. These days, the young adults & children couldn’t care less about the Disney hour: they want to see Disney, they just go to the Disney Channel. But their parents go all nostalgic, recalling their own Christmases, which is why most Swedish families start off their celebrations watching Jiminy Cricket sing “When you wish upon a star.”

Once the “cultural” aspect is over and done with, it’s time for food. Swedish has contributed a couple of words to the global community: one of these words is smorgasbord, i.e. a HUGE buffet, containing everything from pickled herring to glazed ham and meatballs. In between, you’ll find such oddities as a “salad” consisting of herring, apples, onions and beets (served with cream), various types of cabbage – “brown cabbage” fried in sugar, “long cabbage” which is kale fried with sugar and boiled in cream – and lutfisk (dried fish which is soaked in lye prior to being boiled). Obviously, very few Swedish families do the whole spread.

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John Bauer – the Yule Goat

And then, after all that food, comes Santa. Well, traditionally, we don’t have a Santa. We have a Yule Goat, and originally someone would dress up as a goat to give out gifts. Plus we have our tomte, a greyer and somewhat more solemn version of the Christmas elf.
If we start with the goat, there are some that say this very old symbol for midwinter celebrations harkens back to Viking days and the god Thor. This god of thunder not only had an awesome hammer, he had two goats which pulled his chariot. Somewhere along the line, Thor’s goats transformed into the yule goat.

Hmm. I’d say the root to the goat lies in the medieval tradition of mumming. In medieval Sweden, the Hanseatic League had considerable influence, and they brought with them German Christmas traditions, one of which was for young men (apprentices) to dress up and go from house to house performing little musical plays, often centred round the nativity. Tradition had it that one of the young men should always be dressed as a goat, representing Krampus.

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Krampus in good old form

Krampus? I see you rolling your eyes and thinking this is getting complicated. Not my fault, okay? Krampus is a recurring figure in the European December traditions. Originally, he was a personification of the devil, the black to St Nicolaus’ white, if you will. Where St Nicolaus would present good children with gifts, Krampus threatened the naughty ones with spanking, and even had a big sack slung over his shoulder in which to carry off the seriously disobedient kids.

The Swedish Krampus began as a figure with birch switches and a sack, but over the centuries he switched into the giver of gifts rather than spankings. That sack of his was no longer used to carry bad children away, instead it was filled with gifts for the children, and hey presto, the Swedish Yule Goat was born, a benign creature sporting a sheepskin coat and a bulging sack.

These days, very few Swedish homes are visited by the Yule Goat. I guess we fell for peer pressure and Santa. Somewhat ironically, Santa is a modern representation of St Nicolaus, so one could say we’ve upgraded from celebrating with St Nicolaus’ devil creature to the saint himself.

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A tomte

Long before we had Santa (in Swedish Jultomte) we had the tomte. This ancient being has accompanied the Swedes through century after century, a little thing that watches us on the sly. The tomte is often tied to a place, and tradition has it that every old farm in Sweden has a tomte, a lurking little shadow who ensures the cows give milk, the hens lay, the crops are generous and the children don’t die. Well, assuming the tomte’s host is respectful and recognises his presence. An angered tomte will lead the children to drown in the icy stream, strike the cows with disease and spread rot over the harvest. All in all, a dangerous creature to rile.

Fortunately, the tomte doesn’t ask for much. All he wants for Christmas is a bowl of rice porridge, with plenty of cinnamon and sugar on top. Seems a very fair price, IMO. And just in case, many of us Swedish mothers and housewives will set out a bowl come Christmas Eve. For the tomte, or the elves, or whatever other being might be out there, watching over us.

Today, December 23rd, is the day we call “the day before the day”. Here I am, writing a blog post when the salmon needs curing, the ham must be glazed, the meatballs rolled, the herring pickled, the kale fried, the bread baked.

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But I will find the time on Christmas Eve to step outside into the dark with my bowl of rice porridge. Some steps from the house, and I’ll be swallowed in darkness, making my way slowly towards the barn. When I set down the bowl, it steams in the cold, and I’ll lift my eyes to the sky, to the stars that were there long, long before man first trod the Earth, that will be there long, long after we’re gone. And there, to the east, shines a bright, bright star. A star of hope in the midst of the dark, a ray of light into hearts that feel lonely and cold.

Happy Holidays to all of you. Whether Christian or not, take a moment in the winter darkness to consider the truly important things in life. Family. Friends. May you all be fortunate enough to be with those you truly care for, and may there be some moments at least of peace and quiet.

As we say in Swedish: GOD JUL!

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